The endless darkness of mourning: ‘Cion: Requiem of Ravel’s Boléro’ returns

“Blessed are those who mourn for they will be comforted.” — Matthew 5:4

The stage is pitch-black with a stary sprawl of crosses, and a silhouette of a treelike cluster of bodies at a distance; it resembles a graveyard in the height of night. A wretched eerie wail consumes an eager air in the auditorium — it is quite familiar  — sounds much like my mother’s, like my ex’s, like my grandmother’s; quite familiar. I have heard it before; it sounds much like my own — much like a spirit’s response at the announcement of your loved one’s death. 

Moments prior to my collapse from the suffocation of this familiarity, a different collapse occurs, it is that of the wail into a whimper. A body in drapes staggers into centre stage, the whimper hauls into a howl, and then a guffaw, and then a song — and then I breathe. 

The song haunts a dance, the dance haunts a chorus, and the performers become a puissant evocation of my traumas. I look about in faltering fright, and witnessing the audience around me, it dawns: just as I was warned, I am indeed in a requiem. 

A Sesotho saying goes, “Lefu ke ngwetsi ya malapa ohle.” Translated, “Death is universal.” The direct translation is, “Death is the daughter-in-law of every home.” The notion is that death does not come as a visitor, it arrives and bears the surname of the home, it forms part of the family — in every home — in every way. The irony to this saying is that in context the daughter-in-law multiplies the family and its legacy, and brings goodness to her husband (he who finds a wife finds a good thing), but death just takes. It takes and takes and takes, matures into grief; and stays. Perhaps the elders knew more of its purpose. Perhaps. 

Gregory Maqoma’s Cion: Requiem of Ravel’s Boléro chants this “perhaps”, while asking, “wena kufa, unyoko ngubani na? Wena kufa, uzalwa ngubani?” And our spirits dance in our obliviousness’s dust of the elders’ knowledge, freeing ourselves, even if it be for a brief moment, of the pain purposed by this death.

The musical scoring of Cion, by composer Nhlanhla Mahlangu, is an adaptation of Maurice Ravel’s ballet score, Boléro. An incredibly fitting choice of score as its composition of a single theme that grows through harmonic and instrumental ingenuity parallels that of Cion’s central theme. The relentless snare-drum that underpins the entire piece that is built on until a burst of pent-up tension is a dire depiction of the ceaseless journey of mourning. Mahlangu reimagines this masterpiece with layers of Isicathamiya, beat-box, and African gospel choral by the Soweto Gospel Choir.   

Tap dancing reenacting the snare-drum of Ravel’s Boléro. Image: John Hogg

This ameliorating music becomes the ocean to the voyage of our mourning back to ourselves; sometimes roaring, and at times quiet. The ship is a narrative borrowed from Zakes Mda’s sequel to his classic, Ways of Dying, the novel Cion. The dance is at the helm. Maqoma acquaints us with Toloki (previously played by Maqoma, and now by Otto Andile Nhlapo), the professional mourner, who has travelled from South Africa to America, and has settled with a family in Athens, Ohio. He uncovers the story of the family’s ancestors who were runaway slaves and had nothing but their mother’s quilts for a map — quilts are an essential symbolistic ditto in the production, working as props, and as drapes worn by the cast; wearing their maps as it were. Like Mda, Maqoma alternates from Toloki’s story to that of the runaway slaves. 

Another stand-out symbol from Mda’s text that Maqoma detrously employs in his scenography is a sycamore from the third chapter:

“I stop under a giant sycamore near the road to the churchyard … I can see why they call this a ghost tree. Its trunk and branches are shimmering in the thin light of the stars and the diminishing last quarter moon as if they have been splashed with fluorescent white paint. As soon as the trunk leaves the ground it opens into a gaping grotto, with dried up veins and arteries running amok in it … The ghost tree. It is a keeper of secrets. It has many stories to tell.” 

We meet this tree from the opening scene and experience it throughout Toloki’s journey, along with that of his friends’ ancestors. 

Cion does not rely on signature star power, the minimalist set and exquisitely dim lighting design by Oliver Hauser spotlights not a single face, and the austerity of the costume by Black Coffee is similar across the cast, as if to say that we are all the same in the eyes of death. The cast meets the audience in the foyer as hapless mourners on the queue for the funeral food after the burial. The magic here lies firmly in the harmony of aesthetics, script, and performance; every turn is fearless in the face of grief, yet never recoiling from responsibility and emotion. 

The ineffable ability of the ensemble to perform precision-tool dancing, and break into in-tune divertissements while staying true to the mechanics of the central storyline proffers a quality kind of connection with the audience. They conjure alarm in whooping, adrenalised highs, and quieter, more philosophical elements of the drama in the softer moments.

This tour de force of 20 dancers from Maqoma’s Vuyani Dance Company, and 18 singers as fellow mourners, unpacks the centuries of incessant mourning by black people. However, it does not only awaken the pain, but through the practice of song and dance that is akin to how the black race mourns, Cion takes us through the process of mourning.

At a time of such tremendous loss, Cion is the night vigil, it is the bus trip to the graveyard, it is the chorus that holds us as the coffin is lowered, it is the after-tears gathering, it is the calls and visits from loved ones long after the funeral.

Cion: Requiem of Ravel’s Boléro runs until Sunday, February 6 at the Joburg Theatre, Johannesburg. Tickets are available at Webtickets from R70 to R200.

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